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Kazimir Malevich

A failing Russian bank exposes a climate of fear and suspicion over ownership of Malevich’s “Black Square”

The painting is currently with Russia's Culture Ministry, though Malevich's heirs dispute the bank's original ownership

A version of Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square” has become the most hotly contested work of art in Russia. A bankrupt Russian bank, Inkombank, is locked in a bitter debate with creditors over whether or not to auction off its art collection of 800 paintings, which includes a version of Malevich’s famous “Black Square” and two other works by the artist, a self-portrait, and a portrait of Malevich’s wife.

The Inkombank “Black Square” is the fourth version of this theme by Malevich. Two earlier versions are in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery, and another is in the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg. According to Yevgenia Petrova of the State Russian Museum, the Inkombank version could have been painted anywhere between the mid 1920s to the mid 1930s.

Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematist paintings, with their geometric shapes in solid colours, were suppressed by the Soviets who instead championed Socialist Realist art.

By an irony of history, Malevich is now seen to have conceived the same aesthetic as the American Colorfield and Abstract Expressionist Schools of Rothko, Pollock, and De Kooning, who, several decades later during the Cold War, were held up by US authorities as embodying the spirit of vigour and freedom in contrast to the tyranny of Communism. As Malevich’s place in art history and on the market becomes more assured, “Black Square” has emerged as the artist’s greatest work.

Inkombank, formerly Russia’s largest bank by assets, until its crash during the financial crisis of August 1998, announced its intention to auction off its collection in February and the leading Moscow auction house, Gelos, was asked to prepare for the sale. But, in a surprise announcement, the bank’s council of creditors said last month that there will be no auction, and that the collection will go to the State.

It was not made clear how this will come about, or whether the collection is being given in part payment of the bank’s approximate $400 million debt to the Russian government.

Sources say that the creditors’ move to stop the auction is part of a government plan to claim the works and prevent them from disappearing into a private collection.

“Black Square” has, in fact, been in the hands of Russia’s Culture Ministry since 1999 when Inkombank handed the painting over for safe-keeping while creditors decided what course of action to take with the bankrupt bank. It now seems that the ministry is reluctant to part with the work.

A first for the market?

According to Gelos, the Malevich works account for two-thirds of the Inkombank collection’s value, which may be tens of millions of dollars. If the sale goes ahead, it will be the first time such valuable works are sold on the country’s young art market. Other works in the collection include paintings by avant-garde artists such as Nadezhda Udaltsova, Aristarkh Lentulov, and Robert Falk.

Experts believe that because “Black Square” is Malevich’s most recognisable work, it could fetch as much as $20 million on the international art market.

Inkombank, on the other hand, say that the sale could only make several million dollars, since potential buyers will not be able to take the painting out of the country because of government rules barring the export of works of art and cultural treasures.

Sources in the Russian art world claim that Inkombank, whose very name has become synonymous with dishonesty, was trying to rig the auction to sell the art to its own people on the cheap.

Climate of fear

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the artist’s heirs, some 30 relations, including the descendants of Malevich’s third wife, Natalia Manchenko, are disputing the bank’s ownership of the Malevich paintings.

Their campaign has been led by Klemens Toussaint, the art historian who has been the champion of Malevich’s relations for the past decade.

Last year Mr Toussaint successfully led the family’s efforts to reclaim Malevich works from MoMA in New York. They struck a deal with the museum which gave the family $5 million in cash and Malevich’s “Suprematist composition”, which was then auctioned in New York last spring for $17.5 million. Mr Toussaint would not say the exact amount that made its way into the hands of each of the relations, nor would he say how much he made, but he admitted that legal and other expenses relating to the case were probably in the region of several million dollars.

Mr Toussaint has no plans to challenge Inkombank’s ownership of “Black Square”. He says that Malevich’s relations had long been afraid to push any legal battles over the paintings in the bank’s collection, and even in the early 1990s when he first proposed the idea of challenging MoMA, the relations’ first reaction was one of fear.

Such fear is typical for Soviet citizens because it cannot be ruled out that a major bank or corporation will not employ violent means to protect its assets.

According to Mr Toussaint, the fourth “Black Square” was acquired by Natalia Manchenko in the 1970s when the Soviet State made a small financial settlement for most of Malevich’s works.

In 1993, her descendants, living in the Samara region, in south Russia, were approached by thuggish young men and given 24 hours to agree to the sum of $100,000 for the painting. They then took the painting to Inkombank, which had just opened.

Mr Toussaint claims that Inkombank reneged on promises to pay Manchenko’s relations approximately $250,000 for the pictures in late 1993.

Ownership questions

If Mr Toussaint’s claims are true, the legitimacy of any auction, not to mention Inkombank’s ownership, would be in doubt. Bank officials could not be reached for comment. Gelos said it had seen Inkombank documents proving the original sale of the painting, but when pressed, the auction house could not confirm whether or not any money had ever been paid.

Mikhail Prokhorov, director of Rosbank, and head of Inkombank’s council of creditors said last month that the Inkombank collection should go to the State.

However, Deputy Culture Minister, Pavel Khoroshilov, said the government had no opinion on the matter, and that the future of the collection is the private affair of the bank.

New foundations

Meanwhile, the Malevich family have said that with the proceeds of the deal they made with MoMA, they intend to open a Malevich foundation in New York this spring, with the goal of furthering research on the artist’s life and work.

This announcement comes at the same time as representatives of the Stedelijk Museum in the Netherlands, the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York are discussing the creation of the International Foundation for the Study of Malevich and the Russian Avant-garde. Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery, which also has a large Malevich collection, has also expressed its wish to be involved.

The museum foundation, to be officially established in Amsterdam later in the spring, aims to promote the study, preservation, and publication of Malevich’s works, as well as that of other Russian avant-garde painters.

The State Russian Museum has the largest collection of Malevich in the world and the Stedelijk has the largest Malevich collection outside of Russia. A spokesman for the Stedelijk explained that part of the impetus for the creation of the foundation arose from the fact that the museum had received the Khardzhiev collection of Russian avant-garde paintings assembled by a Russian collector of that name, as a long term loan.

Claims

The Stedelijk’s Khardzhiev collection is itself the subject of a dispute, the Russian government having accused Khardzhiev of taking his collection illegally out of the country in the early 1990s.

At the same time, encouraged by their success in challenging MoMA, the Malevich family has laid claim to works by the artist in the Stedelijk’s collection.

Mr Toussaint accused the museums of creating “a sort of ridiculous competition” and said that their initiative may be a move to unite their resources against efforts by the family to reclaim any Malevich works.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Who gets Malevich’s “Black Square”?'